I’ve nearly finished my latest screenplay, Drift. It’s a reimagining of a British imperial atrocity which took place in Natal in 1879 and was subsequently made into a disgracefully jingoistic 1964 movie, and despite its problematic subject matter — the bad guys won — I reckon it will be a shoo-in for an award at the new-look, diversity–compliant Bafta.
Idris Elba will play the Michael Caine role, obviously; I’m thinking Lenny Henry as Lieutenant Chard, and the cast of Top Boy as the various VC-winning NCOs and men of the 24th of Foot. The Zulus will all be played by actual Zulus because anything else would be cultural appropriation, but one Impi will be in a wheelchair and another will be entirely transgender to emphasise their stunning bravery.
I was initially a bit worried that, being a war movie, there wouldn’t be much opportunity for the 50/50 gender casting balance among secondary characters which Bafta is aiming for. But my director’s cut edit — featuring an extra two hours of women dancing joyously and empoweredly — should sort out that problem. And just to cover myself, I’ll probably get lots of females on the production team, not only doing the obvious stuff like hair, make-up, costume, tea-making and so on but more challenging jobs like key grip and best girl. Then, showing my attention to detail, I’m going to have two runners: one from the West Indies for the short distances, one from Ethiopia for the longer.
If you don’t know what I’m on about, let me clue you in. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) recently suggested that from now on, only works meeting its ‘diversity standards’ may be eligible to win its annual awards. If the new rules are introduced, filmmakers would have to demonstrate ‘diversity’ in at least two of four categories: on-screen characters and themes; senior roles; industry access; audience development. To qualify as ‘diverse’, you’ll need to be minority ethnic, disabled, female (!), LGBT or — at a push — poor or from outside London.
This is, of course, idiotic nonsense which will do little but sow bitterness and resentment, promote mediocrity and generally make TV and movies even more achingly dull and irritatingly right-on than they are already. But hardly anyone will dare say this in public for fear of being called out as a sexist, racist, transphobic bigot or, worse, seeing their work dry up.
Look, for example, at what happened to critic Quentin Letts when he had the temerity to point out a similar problem with ‘diversity’ casting at the Royal Shakespeare Company. If he hadn’t had the full support of his brave and feisty editor of the time, it could very easily have put an end to his career as a theatre reviewer. As ever with these witch-hunt trials, the truth is no defence. Letts was at pains to back up his contentious argument. But that didn’t stop theatrical luvviedom piling in to call for his head. The RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran compared him to ‘some old dinosaur, raising his head from the primordial swamp, and blinking in disbelief that the world is no longer as he expected it to be’.
But what luvvies like Doran call being an ‘old dinosaur’ I would call simply ‘doing one’s job’. As a TV reviewer, I resent having to point out, say, that it’s distracting having Inspector Javert in a classic adaptation of Les Misérables set in 1830s France played by an actor of Nigerian heritage or noting that in The Bodyguard how similarly implausible and gratuitous it is to have United Colours of Benetton casting where the police snipers are black and female. The last thing I want to do is to upset anyone personally. I do feel, however, that someone needs to speak up on behalf of all of us viewers who notice these things — and who rather wish they hadn’t been forced into a position where they had to notice these things.
This is my main beef with ‘diversity’ casting: it’s an act of rudeness, perpetrated in the name of equality, by a relative small minority of artsy-fartsy types against the majority audience who pay their wages. The entertainment industry, it seems to me, ought to be in the business of entertainment — not social engineering. ‘You’ve got to go and see the new Lenny Henry movie. It’s so amazingly diverse,’ said no one ever. The reason Dave Chappelle gets $20 million per Netflix show is because paying audiences find him very funny, not because he’s black. If Sir Lenny were that funny himself, I doubt he’d feel the need to spend quite so much of his time banging on, as he does, about BAME casting injustice.
A diversity policy like Bafta’s — which it in turn adopted from the British Film Institute, and which is already in place at BBC Films and Film 4 (the disease spreads like a woke virus) — won’t, of course, improve artistic standards. On the contrary, they’ll discourage writers from exploring subjects which don’t tick the right boxes, and directors and producers from picking the best available talent because they’ll constantly be trying to second guess the commissars in charge of diversity monitoring.
And commissars is the right word: creatives will be subject to the same constraints as businesses or army officers were in the Soviet Union, forever having the interest of achieving the best results subordinated by party directives.
Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this era as one of institutionalised insanity. Surely it cannot last forever, this world where a body whose job is to award prizes based on artistic excellence can now randomly and peremptorily declare that artistic excellence is no longer the thing it’s meant to celebrate?